Human nature dictates that we often don’t recognize qualitative change at its very beginning, but only when observing the obviousness of it as it near completion. Depending on outcome, the Public Service Commission District 5 contest, with north Louisiana as its entire battlefield, could serve as the latter.
That features as its incumbent the last of Louisiana’s significant populists, Democrat Foster Campbell. He started his political career during the second gubernatorial administration of Prisoner #03128-095, who currently is running for Congress under his given nameEdwin Edwards, with election to the state Senate. While entirely different in personal comportment, one thing they do share is Manichean political rhetoric, blaming the state’s problems on the alleged ability of certain bogeymen to get too much power and wealth at the expense of the larger public, necessitating redistributive policy to right the reputed wrong.
In 2002, he successfully made the natural move to the PSC, where he could be one of five regulators of an industry he regularly singled out as a villain, oil insofar as pipeline regulation. It also gave him an opportunity to rail against other regulated industries such as utilities, often carping that they were allowed too much profit at the expense of ratepayers and taxpayers (even as roughly half of his political contributions since 2009 have come from regulated industries and interested parties). At the same time, he has championed certain special interests in decisions that actually cost ratepayers and taxpayers more, such as in favoring solar energy and energy efficiency concerns.
Most controversially recently, he led a movement to cut phone rates and surcharges for sheriffs’ prisoners, arguing that these were absurdly high. Sheriffs complained the payments were necessary to pay for monitoring calls, and that if these could not be charged, then taxpayers would have to make up the difference.
In short, Campbell has acted as the prototypical liberal populist straight out of Louisiana’s political past. They live in delusion that some advantaged interest can be gutted and the wealth spread around, never understanding that the common man they assert they work for suffers for it through higher taxes, shoddier service, and reduced economic growth, except for the few who have political connections and receive government largesse as a result. These dinosaurs trust that government can make better decisions for people than they can themselves through voluntary market exchanges.
The opponent he drew this fall for reelection is a young lawyer with no political experience, Republican J. Keith Gates, whose general philosophy is almost the polar opposite and has worked in the area of conservative political advocacy. And at first glance, he seems entirely outmatched.
Campbell’s latest campaign finance report showed him with over a half-million dollars available, over 40 times what Gates had according to his own, and had raised this year alone 10 times what Gates did. Labor unions alone this year have given Campbell much more than roughly half of what Gates has received in total, with that half from three affiliates of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and one of the aggrieved telephone contractors for sheriffs. But in terms of actual electioneering expenses – consultant fees, materials, postage, polling, media, etc. – Campbell hasn’t outspent Gates dramatically.
This may change in the final couple of weeks – or not, if Campbell doesn’t see Gates as a serious threat. But it’s also due to Campbell’s long-standing preference for and ability at retail campaigning, where in small-group situations he comes off as salt-of-the-earth and connects well with constituents, as opposed to his fire-breathing, bomb-throwing image as a politician. Almost four decades in elective office in northwest Louisiana, being a cousin of 26th District Attorney Schuyler Marvin (a Republican, also running for reelection this fall), and now a dozen years in the district doesn’t hurt, either.
In fact, the most serious weapon at this point that Gates has against Campbell is he’s a Republican in a state whose majority dislikes Democrats. And that’s where this campaign could signal the end of the sea change in Louisiana’s political culture that has seen populism’s overdue decline.
Gates clearly is outgunned in campaign resources and can fall back on no real specific examples of the impact of his policies. But if the Democrat label has become toxic enough, then he still can win. If not, and in north Louisiana the dying embers of liberal populism burn brighter than anywhere else in the state, the transition has yet to complete. But if he were to create the upset under such unfavorable conditions, that would tell us that, finally, liberal populism as a meaningful political force has met its richly deserved demise.